Interview #1: Mauro Javier Cárdenas

On deminpenteracts, algorithms, and the future of consciousness in fiction.

On the occasion of Mauro Javier Cárdenas’s second novel, Aphasia, having been published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux — my favorite novel of 2020 — I spoke (well, emailed) with him about the book’s formal and theoretical underpinnings.

In true Cárdenasian style, each question leads to its own series of qualifications, destabilizations, jokes, digressions, insults, and analyses. If you’ve yet to read Cárdenas’s extraordinary fiction, the energy and erudition of these answers will go some way toward giving you an idea of its ambition, humor, and interconnectedness.

DI: For myself, the most profound question animating Aphasia was that of inheritance, both traumatic and aesthetic. Whether taking shape in the novel's clustered paternal anxieties, or its many references to other novels and authors meaningful to Antonio, Aphasia seems to ask how we make use of what is bequeathed to us, or whether anything can be done with it after all. Does this reading resonate with you?

MJC: I hate the automatisms of trauma. As soon as I hear that dreadful word, henceforth to be replaced with the word demipenteract, I see a hand with ruler & pencil drawing a straight line between demipenteract and present dramatic circumstances, and I hear a voice, stylized for your pleasure — it’s not self-help it’s literature, doctor — that explains the sadness of the demipenteracted. You can’t even watch an airplane movie without poor Mad Max having flashbacks to his demipenteract, which, paradoxically, is supposed to complexify him? And yet of course our demipenteracts, if you’re unlucky enough to have had them, do tend to have an outsized impact, so I am not trying to dismiss them or minimize them but instead I am trying to ask myself how to represent what’s so boringly linear. In Aphasia, Antonio has to contend with an almost pataphysical formulation: of course your demipenteract, courtesy of your father, will continue to have a detrimental impact on you and your sister and whatever new family you (mis)manage to assemble, and there’s nothing you can do about it, so what are you going to do about it? The question becomes central to Antonio’s life because his sister, who has lost her ability to distinguish between what has / hasn’t happened outside her mind, has gone missing, and because Antonio’s answer to the question of what are you going to do about your and your sister’s demipenteract has been to not think about his and his sister’s demipenteract — what else is he supposed to do? therapy? — ha! — Antonio spends the first half of the novel trying not to think about his sister’s circumstances. In other words my answer to the question of the representation of demipenteracts is to represent the not thinking about demipenteracts. Which is a neat concept except Antonio’s sister needs him plus he has two daughters and we’re all familiar with the narrative of intergenerational demipenteracts and so on.

So to answer your question: yes.

DI: Aphasia is full of long, unfurling sentences that allow Antonio's consciousness to drift, double back, undercut itself, plunge ahead. It is a novel of interruptive cerebration. I know we're both fans of many writers of long sentences. Were you conscious of carrying on that tradition with Aphasia?

Isn’t it amusing that whenever we hear about long sentences we also hear about tour de forces — don’t think of a bodybuilder on a kid’s bike! — as if writing them was some kind of endurance test, a performance of formidablenessness, whereas according to the experts* writing these exciting long sentences is just as easy / hard as writing the short, boring ones? I’ve preferred long sentences ever since I first encountered them twenty plus years ago. I like to believe I still remember the youthful excitement of reading a sentence that shifts seamlessly from an enumeration of discarded furniture to the dictator giving senseless orders and his subjects responding sí, mi general — The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez — or a sentence that begins with a description of the great clan to which a boy belongs, wheel of sensation and all, that shifts effortlessly to the boy cutting out pictures from an illustrated catalogue — To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf — or the freedom of delirium in the sentences of Antonio Lobo Antunes, or the manic recursive sentences of Thomas Bernhard & his descendants. But perhaps the direct precursors to the long sentences in Aphasia are in The Revolutionaries Try Again, my 1st novel, because in that novel I already emulated, synthetized, borrowed, did not pay back, did not return the scissors, used up the paste, skipped the roundtable and assumed instead a mercenary stance toward the writers of these beloved long sentences of my so-called youth, although when I was almost done with all of the above I realized that I could combine my reorchestrated standard modernist European long sentence — chapter IV — with my reorchestrated endashed sentence from Summer in Baden Baden — the Rolando & Eva chapters — focus them on a specific impulse, and voulez-vous, the long sentence with voices, also known as the performance of an impulse sentence, also known as didn’t read it one star, also known as maximalist minimalism at work — I am leaving out all the leaving out these sentences do — was born.

DI: Antonio's job as an SQL engineer is juxtaposed with what one senses is the more significant (to him) part of his life, the life of writing "so-called fictions." You studied mathematics at Stanford. Does your facility with math, computation, etc., affect the way you think about fiction? Do you think it has informed the way you've written your novels in any way?

MJC: (i) When I started to attempt to write fiction, I did so in opposition to what I’m sure I described to myself as the wide world of philistinism, which included my computationally intensive office job, of course, and so anything to do with my office job wasn’t allowed into my 1st novel, for instance, but either because I discovered that the wide world of fiction-making in USA contains more hypocrisies per capita than most corporate professions, with sanctimony as an added bonus, or because it just seemed silly not to play with the suggestive language of machine learning and statistics — say survival model with exponential decay, sit back, and — this type of language has begun to appear in my novels.            

(ii) Perhaps my penchant for chaos in fiction and my distaste for too much structure in fiction can be linked to all the hours I’ve spent working on probabilistic classification problems in which you know the target variable — customer has / hasn’t ordered his creatine — and you can add thousands of potential predictors, also known as inputs — does customer believe in tour de forces, has customer ordered a kid’s bike, etc. — apply different classification methods — my favorite being gradient boosting, which automatically tries all possible combinations of inputs — pick the one with the highest precision, and the outcome is a scoring equation that you can apply to predict who is more likely to order the creatine. Down with anything that resembles equations, I probably (never) say to myself whenever I write.

(iii)  In American Abductions, my 3rd novel, natural language processing algorithms were developed in Python to power my Leonora Carrington talking car, so the influence has gone beyond just the language of.  

(iv) I’m less interested in whether algorithms can write a novel — you can probably program the algorithms to output a commercial novel or a novel that imitates the style of other novels — and more interested in the generative possibilities of algorithms in literature.

(v) Hypothesis: the only truly experimental literature of the 21st century is that which plays with algorithms.

DI: I'm interested in the way you use transcribed recordings in the novel, almost as a method of creating necessary distance from the pain or intensity of the memories of Antonio's mother. In some cases, there were even two or three levels of abstraction (Record in Spanish -> transcribe -> translate to English -> translate your translation back to Spanish.) Could you talk a bit about this device within the novel?

MJC: I’m sure your readers have watercolored portraits of Krapp above their toilets — do they say spoooool before, after, or — so I will skip Krapp’s tapes as a precursor to Antonio’s tapes and focus on the question that, now that I am obviously more mature, I think I was obliquely trying to write about: what to do with the interplanetary resentment Antonio feels towards his mother? The answer is nothing, of course, but at least recording his mother allows him to sit with her while she waits to hear news about her daughter, who has gone missing, and later, the act of transcribing / translating the recordings of his mother allows him to spend more time with his mother than he has been able to do as an adult, plus listening to his mother’s voice through his oversized headphones feels so intimate to him, and it is this intimacy that yields the image of the mother business — a favorite of the author — a business that will warehouse recordings of your mothers, Antonio writes, so when your turn for the horrible comes you can press a button on your phone and receive not a call from your mothers (because what would you say to them if they called?) but a call with a recording of your mothers saying that when you were little you sold water for dogs.

DI: All novels are made of other novels. Aphasia is forthright about this. It references novelists continuously, from Laszlo Krasznahorkai to Gina Berriault to W.G. Sebald. Did you know what novelists you wanted to be in conversation with or did they invite themselves, so to speak, as the writing went on?

MJC: Down with preconceived sets of references, I will probably (never) say to myself now that I’ve written down down with preconceived sets of references. Also: down with down, for it is too fluffy. Aphasia started with me wanting to write a sentence about nature for the nature issue of Conjunctions, a sentence that opens with “Or perhaps nature no longer exists for me because of my job, Antonio thinks,” which is what I was referring to earlier as the impulse, and so then my task, for the next week and half, was to develop a radius of associations on that one impulse, and according to me for my task to be exciting to readers, including me, everything has to come in in that week and a half of writing this one sentence, including any references to other writers, and so this method frees me from having to worry about musty old questions like does this / that advance the narrative, or is this / that what the character thinks or does moment by moment in a specific dramatic situation, although after around one hundred pages these impulses do add up to a dramatic situation. This one 2,116-word sentence about Antonio’s (non)relationship to nature already had so much of what Aphasia was to become without me knowing it at the time, especially the pretending he isn’t where is, which later became the pretending his sister’s wasn’t in trouble, which is a variation on pretending he and his sister weren’t demipenteracted.

A brief final commentary on the so many references in Aphasia: because of Antonio’s altered state due to his sister’s altered state, his mind is devoid of an active imagination, the kind he needs to read and write, so his rereading of other people’s fictions acts as a sort of scaffolding for his shuttered imagination.

DI: Given the purview of this newsletter — anti-realist fiction — I wonder if you might offer us a list (as long as you like) of some of your favorite novels that fit, however (un)comfortably, within this tradition. Novels of consciousness, of obsession, of confusion, of digression...

MJC: Your Krapp-loving readers are probably already familiar with my favorites — Correction by Thomas Bernhard, The Melancholy of Resistance and the first two thirds of War & War by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, the first half of Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño — so I’ll share a few others that might be lesser known like the novella Carrer Marsala from The Siege in the Room by Miquel Bauçà, which surfaces in Aphasia when Antonio’s wondering about gradations of incoherence in fiction, Summer in Baden Baden by Leonid Tsypkin, Jawbone by Monica Ojeda, Seven Samurai Swept Away in A River by Jung Young Moon, These Festive Nights by Marie-Claire Blais, Solenoid by Mircea Cartarescu, A Naked Singularity by Sergio de La Pava, Ava by Carole Maso, The Inquisitor’s Manual by Antonio Lobo Antunes, Fancy by Jeremy M. Davies, Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, The Grass by Claude Simon, Women as Lovers by Elfriede Jelinek, Zone by Mathias Enard, Barley Patch by Gerald Murnane, The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer, The Organs of Sense by Adam Ehrlich Sachs, I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal, Artificial Respiration by Ricardo Piglia, Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt.

DI: I realize this is leading the witness to some degree, but I wonder if you might share your thoughts on the limitations of traditional realism in fiction. You and Jeremy M. Davies had touched on this in your recent podcast for Skylight Books and I found it fascinating.

MJC: I’ve been mocking traditional realism for so long that it feels too easy to continue to put on that variety show. For instance: hey you’re replicating the same narrative conventions that companies have repurposed so you’ll purchase their cures for your corns. Or: so you wrote another poetic pantomime of your suffering, eh? Or: how come your style is tied to the tenure requirements of the University of Southern Corn? And so on.

If we define style as quality of vision, as Proust does, I just don’t think we can have style with 4th century stagecraft, but why is style even important, some might ask — what he’s really asking is why do we even read fiction, professor Baba — yes, well, I like to believe I read fiction because I’m curious about what others won’t tell me in person for fear I’ll think they’re deranged. For instance: the imaginary conversations they are having with their neighbors from twenty years ago. Or: the rock that an architecture student rotated in her lucid dream for 12 hours to complete her design assignment. Or: grief expressed as oblique rants or as dialogues about fortresses. Or even: Pierre Menard, author of you know what. I’ve left out the better examples for fear you might think I’m deranged.

I also think that, in the 21st century, style has its own unique set of challenges. If consciousness equals a system of analogies, as Hofstadter & Sander argue in Surfaces and Essences, and the materials for these analogies are more available to us than ever before, along with all the auxiliary images associated with these analogies, how does that change the representation of consciousness? In other words what can we leave out? If you can code the sonic relationship between words, does that make the preachers of recursiveness obsolete? If narrative continuity algorithms can predict what comes next in your narrative, why would you even continue? Money, I know, paper, yes.

DI: Could you share a bit about what you're working on next?

MJC: I’ve completed American Abductions, my 3rd novel and the 3rd volume of my American Trilogy, in which Antonio has been deported and separated from his family and the novel is told mostly by his daughters and the deported Latin American Americans they interview around the world. It has a simple formal constraint: focus on how their imaginations have changed because of their deportations, not on the external dramatization of their deportations.

Also, after writing two demipenteracted novels back to back, I am now writing an anti-Aphasia novel in which Antonio wonders what he will write about if he decides not to allow his and his family’s demipenteracts into his narratives. So far this constraint, along with the constraint that sentences can only be generated from previous sentences, is yielding a very flexible conceptual novel of sorts with sentences on everything from The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker to Computers Watching Movies by Benjamin Grosser to Antonio’s daughter’s high school application essay on Tree of Life by Terrence Malick. This is the 2nd volume of my American Trilogy.